In Indonesia, a researcher sets off to count Borneo’s elusive wild elephants

Four people take a measurement of a tree in the forest

Alfred Indra Kusuma Rombe did not believe there were any elephants in Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo where he was born. There are known to be between 1,000 to 1,500 wild Bornean elephants in the neighboring Sabah state of Malaysia, but no studies had been conducted to understand how many exist in Kalimantan. Alfred and his team set off to find out.

Alfred Indra Kusuma Rombe stands in the forest looking at the camera with a smile.

Alfred Indra Kusuma Rombe

But researchers can’t simply find each elephant in the jungle and tally them up. So how do they count them? By counting their poop.

Four teams of 10 to 12 trained researchers, rangers, community members, and porters traversed different parts of the Tulin Onsoi area of North Kalimantan to find signs of elephants. For several days on each trip, they traveled across rushing rivers by boat and walked through dense forest and over steep cliffs on foot. Along the way, they recorded whatever traces of elephants they found, from footprints to dung piles. They noted every detail, including the coordinates of where they found the evidence, the characteristics of the terrain, the vegetation, and the physical appearance of the dung.

Whether it’s due to rapidly growing infrastructure development and agricultural expansion, or illegal logging and poaching, humans and wildlife are increasingly coming into close, and oftentimes dangerous, encounters. Only by understanding where the animals are and where they go can we find ways to better avoid, connect, and restore those habitats to help protect elephants and minimize conflict with their human neighbors. With the help of citizen scientists and researchers like Rombe, collecting and sharing data not only helps inform better conservation strategies and land use planning but also helps better manage space for both communities and wildlife.